Canyonlands National Park — “A wilderness of rocks”

  • Tom Dell
  • February 6, 2018

    Featured photo of Mesa Arch from Pinterest

    After last week’s side trip to Alaska, Road Trips with Tom returns to Utah and visits the epic landscapes of Canyonlands National Park.

    Canyonlands is Utah’s biggest national park, yet it receives the fewest visitors – only about 776,000.  That’s less than one-fifth as many as Zion and one-third as many as Bryce Canyon. 

    But don’t let those statistics color your judgement on the relative merit of these parks.  All are spectacular.  Canyonlands encompasses a geologic fantasyland of canyons, mesas, fins, arches, national bridges and spires in a desert that’s huge in scenic value but demands more from visitors than the state’s other parks.

    Needles District. PHOTO:

    This part of Utah is some of the most remote territory in the Lower 48.  It wasn’t discovered until the 1860s and ‘70s by Major John Wesley Powell, who said, “Wherever we look, there is but a wilderness of rocks.”

    Canyonlands has four distinct districts centered on the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers.  Only two are accessible via paved highways, and none are linked.  In this week’s post, we’ll focus on the Island in the Sky and Needles Districts, which is where most visitors head.

    You leave the same way you came in

    The paved entrance roads that dip their toes into these districts are dead-ends – they don’t connect, and you have to return the same way you come in.  The other districts, the Maze and the rivers themselves, require specialized transport and the expertise to tackle some of the most challenging travel routes you’ll find anywhere.

    Canyonlands is a 4-wheeler’s mecca. PHOTO: National Park Service

    Having said that, I should point out that Canyonlands is a wonderful destination for backcountry explorers, and a whole army of tour operators stands ready to take you from the highways to the tracks, trails, rivers and skies.  I highly recommend you take at least one guided tour while you’re here.  You’ll find a comprehensive list of outfitters in a link provided on the park’s web site.  All operate out of Moab. I’ve also included links to hiking trails and 4×4 routes.

    You’ll find the web site here:

    Island in the Sky

    The Island in the Sky District is all about looking down from high points.  It’s about a 40-minute drive from Moab, which makes it the easiest part of the park to visit. But accessibility isn’t the only thing the island has going for it.  Here, you’ll find some of the most spectacular overlooks on the planet.  At any of them, you’ll find a thousand-foot drop off and a view stretching into forever. 

    Dead Horse Point State Park. PHOTO: Tom Dell

    One of them is at Dead Horse Point State Park, right along the Canyonlands entry road.  (Don’t miss this stop!)  More about the state park farther down.

    A special web page has information on directions, camping, wilderness permits, ranger programs, hiking trails, the White Rim 4×4 trail and more.  From the park’s landing page, click on: Plan Your Visit >> Places To Go >> Island in the Sky.

    A grand view

    Please be aware there are no services in the Island in the Sky other than a primitive campground and a water fountain at the visitor center.  Surprisingly, I was able to get a cell phone signal from the island.

    After about 30 miles from Moab, you enter the park and arrive at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, open March-October; hours vary.  That’s where you pay your $25 per vehicle ($15 for motorcycles) entry fee.  Six miles farther south is a junction with the side road to Upheaval Dome, Willow Flat Campground and the Green River Overlook.  Across the main highway is the Mesa Arch Nature Trail, where the featured photo at the top of this post was taken.  If you’re there at dawn on a clear day, expect to see a whole platoon of photographers trying for the perfect shot of the sunrise glow on the arch.

    Grandview Point. PHOTO: Tom Dell

    The scenic road ends at appropriately named Grandview Point.  You’ll want to take the short trail out to the tip of the point. It’s an amazing view of eroded stone, with the 11,000-foot La Sal Mountains and 10,000-foot Abajo Range in the background.

    Let’s backtrack for a moment to Dead Horse Point, which overlooks a point where the Colorado River makes a sharp U-turn inside a deep canyon.  The state park operates a visitor center, campground and snack bar.  Separate admission is charged.  Go to for more information.

    Needles District

    In the Needles District you’re mostly looking up at the park’s formations.  The entrance road branches west from US 191 at a point 40 miles south of Moab (or 14 miles north of Monticello), then heads another 35 miles to the park entrance and visitor center. At the visitor center, the road splits.  Short branches lead to Big Spring Canyon Overlook (not that great), Squaw Flat Campground and the notoriously rugged Elephant Hill 4×4 route.

    Newspaper Rock. PHOTO: Tom Dell

    From the park’s landing page, use the same path for more information, substituting “Needles District” for“Island in the Sky.”  The Needles District may lack the Island in the Sky’s awesome views, but it has a very good selection of hiking trails and 4×4 routes.

    There are two noteworthy stops along the way.  Newspaper Rock is a small state park with an impressive panel of prehistoric petroglyphs.  Canyonlands Outpost is a privately operated facility (open seasonally) offering gas, limited groceries and RV sites.  Unlike at Island in the Sky, I had no cell phone coverage in the Needles District.  My GPS was useless anywhere in the park.


    Most travelers use Moab as a base for visiting both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Moab has mushroomed in recent years and is now a major recreational hub.  It claims to be the world’s mountain biking capital, and I wouldn’t dispute that claim. 

    Road to Squaw Flat Campground. PHOTO: Tom Dell

    The town stays busy all year.  Room reservations are a must.  I’d recommend either the Holiday Inn Express or Hampton Inn.   If you’re planning to visit the Needles District only, you’ll want to stay in Monticello.  If you’re coming to Moab in winter, when the park’s visitor centers are closed, you’ll find the park headquarters office at 2282 Resource Blvd. , (435) 719-2313.

    That’s it for this week’s post.  We’ll return to Arches on February 19.  Next week, we’ll visit Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

    Thanks for reading!




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